Thursday, May 2, 2019

We Shall Overcome

In February 2018, Sinn Féin and the DUP negotiating teams and leaders closed on a draft agreement to be considered by our leaderships. The DUP leader Arlene Foster failed to get the support of her Officer Board. The talks collapsed in recriminations. At that time I wrote: “It is not the end. The shutter has been pulled down on this phase of talks but ultimately all of the parties, Sinn Féin, Alliance, SDLP and the UUP and DUP, along with the two governments, will at some point in the time ahead be back around the same table, negotiating.” And that’s where the parties and two governments will be when a new round of talks commence next week.

The murder of Lyra McKee, and public revulsion at the actions of those responsible, has been the main catalyst for this at this time. The British Government seized the moment and announced a ‘new’ talks process. The Irish Government has bought into this. The shock, outrage and sadness at Lyra’s death has highlighted the widespread desire for progress. People want solutions to the political impasse at Stormont. They want local politicians taking responsibility for those issues that are impacting on citizens, in health and education and the environment and much more. They want to hold these politicians accountable for their decisions. But those who support Sinn Féin and wider opinion do not want a return to the status quo. They want the power sharing government to be rights based. That means as a first step there needs to be commitments that rights currently being denied will be delivered.

As two decades of negotiations through the peace process have shown, finding solutions to long standing issues of dispute is not easy. It is often hugely time consuming. But it has been done. Positive change – significant progress - can be achieved when the political will is created.

The Good Friday Agreement is perhaps the best example of this. But as George Mitchell pointed out at the time – that was the easy bit – implementing the agreement would be much more challenging. He was right. Remember, the DUP absented itself from those talks. Some UUP representatives, now prominent in the DUP, walked out. It took almost a decade for Sinn Féin to agree a power sharing government with the DUP.

Sinn Féin has consistently worked in good faith within the power sharing government.  Our objective was and is to deliver for citizens. A lot of good work was done by the Executive and the Assembly and significant progress was made on many issues, including on cross border and all-Ireland matters. However, the DUP consistently tried to hollow out the Agreement. They removed Ian Paisley as leader because he was perceived by some to be too friendly with Martin McGuinness. The Church which he founded got rid of him. 

Martin and Peter Robinson, who took over from Ian Paisley, had a decent working relationship. But it was a battle a day. For Peter I am sure, as well as Martin. There were also very serious allegations - unproven so far -  of  wrong doing by some senior DUP figures around NAMA and other important issues.   All the while the DUP approach was minimalist on equality issues. As a consequence, there was little or no progress on important matters. For example, 21 years after the Good Friday Agreement, there is still no Bill of Rights. 

When Peter Robinson retired, Arlene Foster’s use of offensive terms to describe Irish speakers and others highlighted the DUP’s antipathy toward the equality and mutual respect elements of the Good Friday Agreement and its disrespect for Irish identity and culture. This was most clearly evident in its antagonism toward the Irish Language. In a changing Ireland DUP opposition to marriage equality, its resistance to positive efforts to support women’s’ health initiatives; its refusal to honour commitments it gave on legacy matters made matters worse. And then came the costly debacle of the Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) scandal! A perfect storm which increased the toxic atmosphere within the Executive and the Assembly. 

Much of this DUP negativity is fed by the fear political unionism has for the democratic and demographic changes that have been taking place over the last two decades. According to the most recent census results those who identify as British now make up less than half of the population of the North. In the 2017 Assembly election, for the first time since partition, the UUP and DUP won less than half of the Assembly seats. But change is also obvious in the nationalist middle class. Civic republicanism has emerged as a real and growing grassroots movement for rights and equality. Brexit - and the British Government and the DUPs disregard for the referendum vote - has been an accelerant for this movement.

So, let’s be clear about some basics. The British government is not about to implement previous Agreements it has failed to honour thus far. It is more concerned with process at this time than product. The British Government has bigger fish to fry. The Union to one side, Mrs May really doesn’t care about the North. In the midst of the Brexit madness at Westminster she will not stand up to her DUP partners in government and insist that those fundamental human rights available everywhere else on these islands should also be available for citizens in the North. She is badly served by Karen Bradley. The current British Secretary of State has proven herself more incapable than any of her many mediocre predecessors. And anyway now courtesy of Brexit many people in Ireland and abroad have seen close up the arrogance, ignorance and downright stupidity and incompetence of British parliamentarians. What right thinking person would want to be governed by idiots like them? At least if we had self-government we could sack our own idiots when we want to.

The murder of Lyra McKee has not changed any of this. That is the sad reality. Of all the parties Sinn Féin, rooted in republican communities, and at considerable risk to ourselves and our families, has stood firmly against these anti peace armed gangs like the one which killed Lyra. The political parties cannot be blamed for her death, although those who have a dead hand on the process of change should reflect on the need to make politics work. For everyone.

Labelling Lyra’s killers as dissidents is lazy commentary. To dissent is an honourable position. These groups, heavily infiltrated by the policing agencies, serve no purpose whatsoever in the political struggle. Her death came during a US Congressional Delegation visit to Ireland and Britain. Speaker Pelosi and Congress leader Richie Neal were forthright and clear in their admonishments of the Brexiteers and on their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.

Lyra McKee was a victim of stupidity and nihilism. It struck me as particularly poignant that she was gunned down on the twenty first anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It is also particularly sad that this thoroughly modern young woman and her fiancée were denied the right to marriage equality by the DUP. Surely a fitting tribute to her and her bright young life would be to have this right legalised as soon as possible. No ifs or buts. Just like everywhere else on these islands.

Until the DUP accept or acquiesce to this and other rights the power sharing government cannot function properly. DUP leaders know this. They also know that there will be marriage equality, an Irish Language Act and other rights. It is a matter of when, not if. An Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, knows this also. So does the Taoiseach. 

As always Sinn Féin will do our best. I am sure our leaders will encourage the DUP to have these matters resolved as soon as possible. The Irish Government needs to do likewise. The Taoiseach is a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday and other agreements. Let us be positive. We will have our rights. We shall overcome.

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